Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will head out Thursday morning for a three-day visit to Lithuania, where he will meet with leaders of the Baltic states. The meeting is intended to strengthen Israel's relations with the three EU member states.
Netanyahu will meet with Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskait, Latvian Prime Minister Mris Kučinskis and Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas in Vilnius. Netanyahu is also expected to visit a synagogue in the city, which has an extensive Jewish history, as well as a monument commemorating the massacre of Jews in Ponary (Paneriai) during the Holocaust.
This visit is in line with Netanyahu's recent attempts to gain support for his government's political agenda in the EU and the UN, such as moving foreign embassies to Jerusalem, and to challenge the EU consensus on the Palestinian and Iranian issues.
Similarly, the prime minister has been courting the Central European Forum (the Visegrád Forum). In recent years, Israel has placed special emphasis on participating in such sub-regional forums and similar contacts are taking place with the leaders of the Balkan countries in Croatia.
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Israel's relations with Lithuania and Latvia have been warming up in recent years. Estonia is considered to be more distant in its views and tends to take a neutral stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was especially obvious during its tenure as the rotating president of the EU.
Lithuania, on the other hand, was behind Netanyahu's invitation to visit the European Union headquarters in Brussels last December. It was the Lithuanian Foreign Minister who organized the visit, as part of an informal breakfast with the European foreign ministers, held before their monthly meeting. The move was seen as a counter-protocol snatch and provoked outrage at the office of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
Unlike the major European countries, the three Baltic states suffer from negative immigration to other EU countries and thus also from a drain brain, an issue Israel hopes will help strengthen its ties to these countries. In addition, the Baltic states' complex history with Russia has brought with it nativist perceptions; since the Russian invasion of Ukraine's Crimea, these states have been weighed under security concerns as well.
In 2016, NATO deployed special forces in the Baltic Sea area and stationed troops in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia; Lithuania is also interested in cooperation with Israel in the field of internal security. Another issue that is expected to arise in the meetings is Estonia's expertise in digitization, as the country is considered the most digital in the European Union. The three leaders will also raise the issue of the Holocaust and the importance of education in preserving history.
Director of Israel's Foreign Ministry's Europe department, Dr. Rodica Radian-Gordon, told Haaretz that "these are friendly countries, and this is the first dialogue of its kind in this forum. We appreciate the capabilities these countries have, for example, digitally, and we have the opportunity to promote dialogue with them in the areas of innovation as well as promote good bilateral relations. We hope that this forum will gain momentum and we will be able to host them next year in Israel."